Sunday, August 6, 2017

In Praise of Praise as a Teaching Tool

Yesterday, my wife Cindy Mershon and I took our 3 1/2 year-old granddaughter, Schuyler,on a trip to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. We took the light rail train to get there. Schuyler is fascinated by trains and was particularly fascinated by the fold-down seats in the train that she could push down to sit in and then watch snap up when she got out of the seat. Schuyler was sitting in a regular seat as we sat in the station and she asked if she could move to a fold down seat. I said, "Yes", but tried to make it clear to her that for reasons of her own safety she could only get in or out of a seat when the train was not moving. When the train started moving, Schuyler told me that she could not get out of the seat. She understood. As soon as the train rolled to a halt at the next station, however, Schuyler hopped out of the seat to watch it snap back into place.

I said, "Schuyler, I like the way you waited until the train came to a stop before you left your seat. You are being safe. Good job." I was trying to practice what I had learned as a teacher many years before. In order for praise to be effective it must describe the desired behavior, be specific, and be positive. I repeated this for each of the many stops the train made over the next hour. Full disclosure here, Schuyler was imperfect in her application of the rule, so once or twice my feedback was corrective, not praising.

At any rate, it is an important reminder to all of us that praise is a powerful tool for teachers, if used genuinely and appropriately. By genuinely, I mean that the behavior being praised must be genuinely praiseworthy (kids can easily spot false praise) and by appropriately I mean it must reinforce the desired behavior by placing that behavior in a specific context, what psychologists call behavior specific praise (BSP).

In literacy instruction, behavior specific praise can help reinforce desired reading behavior. When a reader stumbles on a word and then figures it out, or successfully identifies a word by working through it, or self-corrects, we can use praise to help make sure these desirable behaviors continue.

Tommy, I like the way you reread the passage and then said the first letter of the new word to help you figure it out. Good job.

Nice work, Mary. You noticed that the word didn't look like "house", so you went back and corrected it by making it look right.

Jimmy, you did something good readers do. You realized that "house" didn't make sense in that sentence so you made it make sense by changing the word to "horse."

In reading comprehension, too, praise can be used to both reinforce desired behaviors and also extend thinking. Suppose you were reading Katherine Paterson's A Bridge to Terabithia with the students.

Lisa, I like the way you were able to identify Terabithia as a fantasy land for Leslie and Jess by using your background knowledge of other fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia. Yet, A Bridge to Terabithia is a very different kind of book from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. How would you say these books differ? 

Eric, you have correctly identified the "love letter" that Jess and Leslie wrote to Janice Avery as an act of revenge against a bully. Nice work. Good readers make inferences by combining their own knowledge with information from the reading. Do you think Jess and Leslie were right to do this? Were they acting like bullies themselves? What evidence do you find in the story to support your answer?

Used properly praise is a powerful tool for the teacher. There is no reason to withhold genuine praise from students. Indeed, psychiatrists tell us that praise should outweigh correction by a ratio of 4:1. You may want to track your own praise giving behaviors in reading instruction situations. With struggling readers it can be tempting to get this praise/correction ratio out of whack. I advise teachers working with strugglers or with students who misbehave to try to "Catch the child doing something right!" Well structured and genuine praise may be a better route to changed behavior than correction. As that sage of children's literature, Mary Poppins, might say, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."